Serie A hedges its bets as it hunts for funds with Middle East broadcast tender

By Paul Nicholson

January 15 –  Serie A, who are in the final stages of hiving off their commercial rights to venture capitalist CVC for $1.7 billion, will have an early test of that value with the league having issued a tender for the broadcast rights for the Middle East and Africa.

Serie A earned €500 million from the last three-year rights cycle with a pan-regional deal with beIN Sports. That deal was fractured with Saudi Arabia’s hosting of pirate channel BeoutQ that stole beIN content for rebroadcast, primarily within Saudi.

In their tender, Serie A have given the option for broadcast bidders to bid either pan-regionally or on a country-by-country basis (24 territories).

The history of broadcast rights in the region is that country specific deals have never achieved significant rights fees for premium sports, but that pan-regional deals have secured big money deals, in particular with beIN Sports over the past 10 years.

For Serie A this becomes complicated because even though the league disputed the broadcast piracy in Saudi, and issued legal proceedings, at the same time Italian football awarded its SuperCoppa to the country – a move that was viewed as rewarding the Saudi regime that was stealing paid broadcast rights from its largest international broadcast buyer.

That sparked a backlash against Serie A, led by beIN Sports but widely supported by other rights holders who were themselves facing the loss of rights fees the BeoutQ piracy would inevitably mean for their sports.

The lifting of the economic blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia (beIN Sports is Qatar—owned) has not, as yet, brought about any lifting of the ban on beIN Sports broadcasts into Saudi where the channel is outlawed.

Without Saudi Arabia, beIN are unlikely to be incentivised to bid significantly for the rights to a league where there is already distrust. That could prove a disastrous start for Serie A’s new rights cycle and its venture capital partners. Unless, Saudi emerges with a significant domestic buyer.

So far there has been no indication that Saudi will plug the financial difference rights holders are facing. The Premier League recently renewed a £500 million+ three-year deal with beIN Sports and other major rightsholders are expecting to do the same.

For Serie A, precariously finding itself in a no man’s land having bitten the hand that fed it, the renewal process could prove very painful unless a Saudi rights buyer appears with a significant amount of money to save the day.

That possibility cannot be entirely ruled out as Saudi Arabia have indicated that in the wider sports world they are prepared to invest and there is a national ambition to put their country on the sports map. But for that to happen in the broadcast marketplace someone somewhere is likely going to lose face. Or Serie A is going to lose a lot of money.

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